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Shelton steps down from commission

LANGLEY — Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton will resign from his job as commissioner this fall, he said Monday. And it wasn’t long until other well-known Republicans came forward to say they want his job.

Shelton, who has served as the District 1 commissioner on the South End since January 1993, is stepping down to take a job as executive director of the Washington Counties Insurance Fund. The fund is a public agency that was created in 1988 and provides liability coverage for 28 counties in Washington and is also the insurer for Island County.

“It has been the most exciting work years of my life and I will miss the community interaction that the position provides,” he wrote in a statement to the press. “I would have preferred that I had been able to finish this term before leaving but the timing of this opportunity does not make that possible.”

Shelton will leave the island after 37 years and move to Olympia in September.

Among the politicians interested in replacing Shelton are Rep. Chris Strow and Island County Auditor Suzanne Sinclair.

New commissioner will be a Republican

While there are certainly a number of people interested in the job, one thing is certain: Shelton’s replacement will be a Republican.

“There will be no election this year, because the resignation came so late in the year,” Sinclair said.

Island County Republicans will call together their central committee and select up to three candidates.

The remaining commissioners, John Dean and Mac McDowell, will then appoint Shelton’s replacement from the nominees presented by the Republicans.

“If for some reason the two commissioners can’t agree on one candidate, the governor would step in,” Sinclair said. However, that scenario is rather unlikely, she added.

The replacement will serve out Shelton’s term until after the 2008 election.

The person who is elected in November will take office immediately after the election is certified.

It’s not clear when Republicans will gather to pick the candidates for the temporary appointment. De Dennis, Central Committee chairman of the Island County GOP, did not respond to requests for comment.

Shelton said whoever is going to do the job will need a thick skin at times, but he has faith in his fellow commissioners to find a good replacement.

“What we need at any elected position is someone who looks at things pretty globally and has no narrow agenda,” he said.

“I don’t know if South Whidbey is more or less difficult to serve than other communities. The thing about South Whidbey is it’s an involved community. People feel pretty passionate about things,” Shelton added.

“It isn’t a position for the faint hearted,” he said.

Strow wants to be commissioner

As the news spread through the county, Rep. Chris Strow announced that he is interested in Shelton’s job. Strow serves in Position 1 for the 10th District in the state House of Representatives.

“Really for me, the greatest part of politics is serving your community,” Strow said. “Serving at the county commissioner level is exactly that.”

The arrival of his daughter three weeks ago has also changed his outlook on life. Strow and his family live in Freeland.

“Frankly, with my little baby girl in our lives now, it doesn’t appeal to me as much as it used to to return to Olympia,” he said.

Strow is currently assistant minority floor leader and serves on the House Capital Budget, Agriculture and Natural Resources, and Insurance, Financial Services and Consumer Protection committees.

The experience he gained in Olympia and relationships he forged on the state and federal levels will help the county, Strow said.

Some of the challenges that Strow sees on the horizon for county residents are issues Shelton also feels strongly about. Strow said he wants to maintain an appropriate level of service for residents while keeping taxes reasonable.

“People are feeling the pinch of property taxes,” Strow said. “It’s important to keep taxes as low as possible while keeping the quality of life people expect.”

As a South End politician, he is well aware of the passionate voters on both ends of the political spectrum.

“I’ve grown out of the political landscape of South Whidbey,” Strow said.

“I’m a bit greener than most Republicans, but I’m a die-hard fiscal conservative. I really don’t think it’s about one side vs. the other, but listening to everybody,” he added.

The son of Island County’s District Court Judge Peter Strow, his roots on Whidbey stretch back to his teenage years when he attended Oak Harbor schools.

In 1994, Strow joined the congressional staff on Congressman Jack Metcalf, and was a transition advisor before becoming deputy chief of staff. He served as the senior aide for Metcalf for five years in Washington, D.C.

He was elected to his first term in the state House of Representatives in 2004 and was reelected to a second term in 2006.

Sinclair also wants the job

Sinclair, the county auditor, also wants the job.

“I plan to seek the appointment,” Sinclair said Monday, adding that she will submit a letter of interest to the Republican Central Committee.

With 10 years as the auditor and two years in the public works department, Sinclair comes with lots of county government experience.

She was first elected auditor in November 1997, and has been re-elected twice. At the time she was elected, Sinclair was the accounting supervisor in the county’s public works department.

“People are looking to continue the trend to professionalizing our systems here,” Sinclair said. “I want to continue that.”

The other top priorities on her list center on growth and development.

“In Island County, issues brought on by zoning and land-use will continue to be important,” she said.

As an active member in the Republican party and through her work relationships as the auditor, Sinclair said she is confident she can represent the county beyond its borders.

“I understand how to make our concerns heard in Olympia,” she said.

Sinclair has served the local community as a Rotarian and is past president of the South Whidbey Rotary Club. She has served as president of the South Whidbey Republican Women’s Club and as treasurer of the Washington Federation of Republican Women.

Prior to joining Island County government, Sinclair was in private practice as a CPA in Freeland.

Sinclair has two grown daughters, and has called Whidbey Island home since 1984.

For Sinclair, not only a commissioner is leaving, but a longtime friend and colleague is departing from the county.

“I liked working with Mike Shelton. He is considerate, helpful and easy to work with,” she said.

Gabelein doesn’t want the job

Ray Gabelein, a county planning commissioner and a Clinton contractor, said he isn’t interested in the commissioner’s job. There’s been speculation for more than a year that Gabelein would run for Shelton’s seat if he didn’t seek reelection in 2008.

“I don’t right now have any plans to run,” Gabelein said.

“It’s pretty time consuming. It’s a big obligation and I kind of enjoy what I’m doing with the planning commission,” he said.

It’s a critical time to serve as county commissioner, Gabelein added. The county is working to wrap up its rewrite of rules that cover development on properties with environmentally sensitive features such as streams, wetlands and wildlife habitat, and must also consider the incorporation of Freeland and the proposed expansion of Oak Harbor’s urban growth area.

“He’s always been available to people on the issues,” Gabelein said. “No matter how touchy the issue, you can walk right in and talk to him about it. Not many officials do that. He’s always been honest and open.”

“He’s just done an outstanding job. I wish he was going to stay,” Gabelein said.

Shelton told Gabelein and others of his decision to step down Sunday night. Monday morning, Shelton sent an e-mail to county workers to let them know he would be resigning.

Democrats look for 2008

Marshall Goldberg, chairman of the Central Committee for Island County Democrats, said his party has already been looking at the 2008 race for county commissioner.

“Our intention has always been to find a qualified candidate to run against Mike Shelton, or now, his appointed successful,” Goldberg said.

Indeed, Shelton has earned grudging praise from many of his critics over the years.

Steve Erickson, a member of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network who has battled with county officials on land-use issues over the years, said Shelton never got “personally nasty” like other officials did during disputes.

“While I’ve had my differences with Mike, the amount of personal friction has been about what you would expect,” Erickson said.

Erickson said the South End has changed a lot since Shelton first took office 14 years ago.

Many will be anxious to see who becomes South Whidbey’s next commissioner; some on the South End have long complained that because the entire county votes to elect commissioners, the progressive-leaning South End has been unable to elect a Democrat because South Whidbey has been outnumbered by Republicans throughout the county.

With an long-serving Republican incumbent leaving office, however, the South End might have a better chance of electing a Democrat as commissioner.

“It’s hopefully going to open some things up so the South End has better representation,” Erickson said. “How this ends up in terms of choosing his successor will be real interesting.”

Still, there’s skepticism. County commissioners will appoint a replacement for Shelton, and the new commissioner will serve for more than a year before facing an election to the job.

“This is essentially handing the crown to the next Republican. It’s a way to guarantee the seat,” said Marianne Edain of WEAN.

Erickson said it’s likely the Republican Party will consider the electability of the new commissioner when it comes up with candidates to fill Shelton’s seat.

“It’s certainly going to be a party insider. It’s not going to be someone who is unknown,” Erickson predicted.

Decision wasn’t easy

While others contemplate Shelton’s replacement, he said one of his biggest regrets is leaving in the middle of his term.

“I’ve always felt that if you’re elected you should serve the full term. I struggled with that a lot,” Shelton said.

Shelton was first elected in 1992 by the narrow margin of 126 votes. During his last run in 2004, he beat Democratic challenger Dean Enellby 6,046 votes.

But he said he is leaving office while the county is in good shape.

“Island County is in excellent financial condition and is staffed by committed people who provide good service to county residents,” he said.

Looking back, Shelton agreed the county has seen changes.

“One of my biggest achievements, from a time and cost commitment, was the adoption of our growth management comprehensive plan,” he said. “It certainly was a contentious and difficult road.”

He also takes great pride in the building and remodeling of the courthouse campus.

An issue strongly pushed by Shelton in recent years are improvements to the mental health system in Island County.

“I don’t know if I would call it an achievement, but I spend a lot of time working on mental health issues,” he said. “We have not arrived, but certainly we have made strides in the right direction,” he said.

Shelton’s final two years in office have been marked by intense criticism.

He has come under repeated fire for statements he made during the county’s takeover of state property at Deer Lagoon from residents who oppose hunting in the area.

Some lambasted his position to support I-933, the property rights initiative, during the last election.

And he was also criticized for siding with county fair officials after the fair association was involved in a controversial land sale and a dispute over access to public records earlier this year.

Shelton received public kudos, however, for brokering a settlement in the dispute between the city of Langley and the Island County Fair Association over a road easement across the fairgrounds. The settlement ended a court battle over the new road.

“I think if we were to characterize challenges, it always involved the community you’re attempting to serve being unwilling to look at their opponent’s side of an issue and find common ground,” he said.

“For instance, the hunting issue: The hunters want no limitations and the residents want hunting eliminated. Hopefully, people will talk to their neighbors and find a compromise,” he added.

Commissioners confident to find replacement

Commissioner John Dean said it’ll be tough to find a replacement who has as much experience as Shelton in county government.

“My first reaction was, ‘Gosh, this creates a big hole in Island County’s institutional knowledge,” Dean said.

Dean also said he doesn’t expect the search for a replacement to turn into a huge political issue.

“Some people seem to think this is about political strategy,” he said. “Whoever we pick won’t be a political issue, but somebody who is a team player and makes good management decisions.”

“It’s not about holding the only Democrat down,” he added. “I don’t feel any pressure. Mac and I work along pretty well. In the past, boards of commissioners didn’t get along, fighting at board meetings. This board works together well and we want to keep it that way.”

Commissioner McDowell will miss his longtime colleague.

“I hate to see him leave,” McDowell said. “After 15 years you know each other’s strength and weaknesses.”

McDowell was confident the board of commissioners will find a suitable replacement. They will also have to pick a new chairman.

“Fifteen years of experience - you don’t take that lightly,” McDowell said. “But look at John (Dean), he came with no experience and he is doing a good job. Even though you hate friends to leave, that’s not to say there isn’t another person qualified for the job.”

While his colleagues on Whidbey Island were sad to see him leave, his new employer in Olympia is excited.

Shelton is replacing Mark Fukuhara as the executive director of Washington Counties Insurance Fund.

“Most of the board members are county commissioners and know Mike,” said chairman of the WCIF board Dwight Robanske.

“Mike has a strong financial background and with his experience in county government he has the ability to work with the state with our audits.

“We are a $60 million nonprofit - Mike will be able to handle this kind of money fairly easily,” Robanske added.

“He’ll help strengthen our organization.”

Robanske declined to say what Shelton will earn at his new job.

Shelton has friends beyond party lines

Shelton’s departure was a surprise to many local leaders.

“I met Mike in 1992 when I was running for state House and Mike was running for commissioner,” said Langley Mayor Neil Colburn said.

“If he wouldn’t have been fighting growth management and wouldn’t have been a Republican, he would have had my vote,” Colburn said.

Colburn said he viewed the past two years as the politically toughest years in Shelton’s career and in county politics in general.

“I wish him nothing but the best. He was a good commissioner in a very difficult time in a difficult place,” Colburn said.

Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen credits Shelton for his achievements in human services.

Haugen said Shelton is a strong advocate for the mentally ill in Island County.

“If you look at his record, you’ll see human services have been a major concern for him,” Haugen said. “Before him, human services in the county looked pretty, pretty bleak.”

Shelton is well-respected in Olympia, Haugen added.

“He spoke eloquently on behalf of the county at the state level,” she said.

“I was saddened to hear Mike was going to leave. We may not always had the same opinion on everything, but I have great respect for him.”

Haugen said Shelton has been a personal friend for years going back to her time when she served in the sate House of Representatives.

“Mike was always the one Republican on the board easiest to communicate with,” she said. “He served the county well.”

Phil Bakke, director of the county’s planning department, said Shelton would be missed.

“He’s getting a lot of hugs from staff. People are going to miss having him here,” Bakke said.

“Mike has been a fair, hands-on commissioner who has given our department a lot of support and leeway to try to represent his constituents as best we can,” Bakke added.

“When I work with Mike, most of the time he strikes me as what I would see as a statesman, he really does. He’s that fair kind of person that thinks and questions.”

The move from Whidbey will be tough for Shelton and his wife, he said.

“After 37 years, your roots get very deep in the community. We have family and wonderful friends here,” he said. “So leaving will be very difficult.”

However, Shelton said it’s not a goodbye forever. The Sheltons plan to retire on Whidbey Island.

“We’ll be back,” he said.

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